First fruits: Asheville GreenWorks Food Tree Project nurtures communities

HEALTHY ROOTS: Since last year, Asheville GreenWorks Food Tree Project has established four orchards in local neighborhoods that have limited access to fresh, healthy food. The program plans to create 18 more plots over the next two decades. Photo by Cindy Kunst

To the undiscerning eye, the test orchard at the Buncombe County Sports Park in Candler doesn’t look like much. Just several rows of mounds and sparse, scraggly bushes and trees haphazardly lining the exposed, grassy landscape.

“The conditions here are so far from ideal for an orchard,” concedes Eric Bradford, volunteer and clean communities coordinator at Asheville GreenWorks. But surprisingly, he continues, plants like the shade-loving pawpaw, which ought to have died off, have thrived, while hearty species like the beech plum that were expected to do well have struggled. “We’re all supposed tree experts, and we have no idea what they’re doing,” says Bradford.

The test plot is part of the nonprofit organization’s Food Tree Project, an ambitious 20-year program developed in concert with the city of Asheville, Buncombe County and the Buncombe Fruit and Nut Club. Launched last year, the program has established four orchards so far, including the test plot; 18 more are planned. The project targets neighborhoods that lack access to fresh, healthy food; and already, these budding community assets are nourishing residents of the Shiloh community, the Asheville Terrace Apartments and the Pisgah View Apartments, where the orchard enhances the existing Peace Garden.

To foster a sense of ownership and community involvement, GreenWorks partners with residents, who decide what they want to plant and help care for the orchards.

The test orchard was created to determine which species would survive and produce under less-than-ideal conditions. The results will guide the planting going forward: pawpaws, blueberries, blackberries and mulberries, among other winners.

Most of the plants were either donated by local nurseries, such as Southeastern Native and Carolina Native, or purchased locally with grant funds.

“Asheville GreenWorks received a community recreation grant from the Parks and Recreation Department in the spring of 2013,” explains Lynn Pegg of Buncombe County Parks and Recreation. Her agency, she continues, “provided the land for the orchard and has left the upkeep to Asheville GreenWorks and the Fruit and Nut Club.”

As for the aesthetics, “It’s hard to have some type of public appreciation of a wild space,” says one Fruit and Nut Club member who declined to give his name. “People are so used to perennials and lawns that are manicured; they don’t understand or appreciate it. You gotta wait five to 10 years for it to grow.”

Bradford, too, counsels patience, saying, “It doesn’t look like much now, but someday people will be throwing a football around the Sports Park and be able to wander down and pick an apple.”

Sand Hill-Venable Elementary School is a stone’s throw from the test orchard, within walking distance for the students there. Children at Sand Hill will participate in cultivating the edibles, from the planting and trimming to constructing signs identifying the orchard and its resident species.

GreenWorks and its affiliates maintain a strong presence in Buncombe County schools, promoting conservation practices. Thanks to the organization’s efforts, these students sort their lunchroom waste, keeping recyclables and compostable material out of the landfill. And in another collaboration, each classroom at Asheville’s Ira B. Jones Elementary nurtured a fruit-bearing tree.

Candler resident Jillian Isele, whose son attends Sand Hill Elementary, is thrilled about what the test orchard might mean for him and her two younger sons. She’s signed up with GreenWorks to help maintain the plot, and she looks forward to bringing the boys there to play in the field and pitch in when possible. “It’s important to teach our children to take our food back. This is invaluable,” Isele says.

Bradford, meanwhile, is quick to dispel any notion that having an orchard entails too much effort. “This is the laziest form or gardening: You put in a little work upfront and a little bit of trimming,” he explains. “We want people to see how easy it is and then go home and plant in their own backyards.”

Isele, too, hopes her volunteer experience will prove educational. “I want to learn about gardening,” she says, adding that the family of five will most certainly be partaking of the fruits of their labors.

GreenWorks, too, hopes the orchards will educate a new generation about growing their own food. And in an interesting twist of fate, Bradford once attended an elementary school that was located exactly where the test orchard is now — and he remembers the organization he works for today, then known as Quality Forward, coming to his school. Talk about influencing a child’s life: Today, he and others in the edible plant community are inspired to pass the torch.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.